Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Tasers, Censorship, and Free Speech Part I

For those of you who haven’t seen the video of the University of Florida student tasered for being obnoxious at a political event featuring John Kerry, here it is. This comes on the frightening heels of the tasering of a UCLA student for not allowing the library security to search his bag, and trying to leave. Slightly related are the stories of the editing of Emmy speeches by Sally Field, and Kathy Griffin, along with the embarrassing leak of the Bush administration’s crowd control memo called The Presidential Advance Manual. The common themes: speech, dissent, a presumption of innocence, and of course, tasers. It’s a multifaceted issue, and the first facet I’m going to address is free speech.

Free speech is one of those American freedoms we cherish. It is often one of the first people list among those that define us as a nation, and indeed, is the first of our amendments to the constitution. We mouthy Americans value being mouthy. How often have we heard someone say “I disagree with what you say, but I'll fight to the death for your right to say it". As a judge Walter Matthau once played said “This is America, where every man has the right to be wrong.”

There is however, an important distinction to be drawn between political speech in a public arena, say a college political event, and speech via a privately owned medium, such as a TV station. Now true, we still place a value on our freedom in both arenas. There also are many situations where we justify the same level of freedom in the private arenas as in the political ones, but for different reasons. One might argue 1st amendment freedoms for speech on a TV program based on the theory that the airwaves are public domain. However, reaching the same conclusion does’t make the situations the same, any more than it makes multiplication and addition the same via the fact that multiplying two 2’s and adding them results in the same answer. The arenas are different, and for very important reasons.

The first amendment, whatever its modern reach, is primarily about freedom of political opinions and religious views. Since popular opinions need no protection, it is unpopular opinions that fall under the 1st amendment’s cloak. This is not mere abstraction. Much opinion now accepted was once unpopular. In other words, it dissented from the accepted norm. Dissent is the lifeblood of a Democracy. Without it, there is no way for a society to identify, and right, its wrongs. Dissent is to democracy what random genetic variation is to evolution – the means of betterment if the environment favors it. In biology, the environment is the physics of the world. In politics, it is the ever changing views of the voting citizenry, and an ever-changing world that demands we be ready to adapt.

This is why we, as Americans, should encourage dissent. Even if you are convinced the dissenter is as wrong as wrong can be, let them dissent anyway. Science deals with this in the experimental data, in the research and field projects, and in the peer-reviewed literature. Politics deals with it in debates, in letters to your congressmen, and at the ballot box. And yes, politics also deals with it by allowing people to speak their mind when confronting their elected representatives. They are entrusted by us, the voting citizenry, to make laws on our behalf. No level of scrutiny and questioning is sufficient. We have no other recourse, no other peaceful means of influence, than our speech, aside from that fleeting moment of biannual lever-pulling.

The student tased at the University of Florida was doing his civic duty, as we all should. Sure he was obnoxious. Sure he was loud. Sure he held the microphone too long. However, there have been ways of dealing with this that have worked effectively for decades. All of us who have attended such events are familiar with this sort of person. They hold the mike as long as they can, savoring their 15 minutes with the political glitterati. As long as they are entertaining and informative, we let them go. If we decide its enough, we boo them off the mike, or the speaker refuses to address them. As far as I can tell from reports at the scene, and Kerry’s comments, the kid was just being politically aggressive, and Kerry was prepared to go toe to toe. This is what politics are supposed to be, and some overly aggressive campus cops ruined it and embarrassed America.

That’s right. They embarrassed America. They embarrased the University of Florida. They tackled to the ground a kid that was doing nothing more than confronting, verbally, his elected representative. No threats of violence, and as the clip above makes clear, no obscenities, despite the claims of the campus cops. This is what is supposed to make America great, that we allow such speakers to speak. Few other countries allow this. Go to Iran or Russia and speak out like that against your senators or the equivalent and see what happens to you.

And please, don’t give me this baloney about the campus cops enforcing some time rule because he was speaking too long. If he was telling Kerry how great a senator he was, they would have let him speak. He was dragged away because he was being critical. That is as un-American as it gets, as is the Bush administration’s dissent-control techniques. Yes, it is likely that the Democrats do something similar, but so what? We should be enraged that any American politician gets away with this. Stifling dissent is the tell-tale sign of someone that can’t take the intellectual heat. As much as I disagree with the creationists, I would never suggest they should be arrested for stating their views, or should be shouted down when they choose to do so. Viva le Difference. I am confident of the rightness of the scientific position, and as such, I welcome the challenges. Politicians need to be ready for the same, and if not, we as the citizenry have a duty to force their hand. This is why we should all love the Olbermann’s and the O’Reilly’s out there, regardless of our differences with their views or their person. They are watching the politicians, and we need that.

Personally, I hope every one of those UF campus cops involved in the tasering of that student is either fired, or required to make amends to that student and his family. I can only imagine what it was like for his mother to watch that video of him being brutalized. I can only imagine what must go through the heads of people in places like Iraq, where we are supposedly teaching them the wonders of Democracy, when they hear of this. I can only imagine an America where this becomes the norm, and sadly, given the number of people out there muttering “he deserved it”, I may not have to wait too long to see it.

What I’ll also probably not have to wait too long to see is the inevitable second step to actions like this. You think this shouldn’t happen in America? The scene with this kid got pretty intense, with a large crowd watching and recording the event. It would only have taken one kid to charge the cops, one of the crowd to toss a chair at them, and then the situation would have gotten totally out of control, and even less American. Won't we be proud to be Americans then? This has to stop, and it has to stop now.


Harriet said...

It wasn't just that he was speaking too long. He took the microphone while someone else was asking a question.

He also didn't wait in line like everyone else; he just went in ahead of those who were waiting.

Source: account from an eyewitness; see the Daily Kos.

Anonymous said...

And that is just cause for hitting someone with 50,000 volts?

I pity the next person who cuts in line in front of you at the local McDonald's.